Six Degrees of Separation?

During the 1960s, Dr. Stanley Milgram did a sociological study—an “it’s a small world after all” study—that, for decades, appeared to show that everyone is connected to one another through an average of six acquaintances. This tantalizing and generally accepted idea has been used as a premise for TV shows, games, and a movie. But is it true? 

In 2002, a psychology professor named Judith Kleinfeld, along with some graduate students, set out to replicate Milgram’s initial study and two follow-on studies, none of which involved a large number of participants. In the spirit of good science, Kleinfeld troubled herself to examine Milgram’s original research records, the result of which was her discovery of serious flaws in Milgram’s not-so-scientific method. More shocking, Dr. Kleinfeld’s meta-study revealed that the “six degrees” claim was never substantiated by those studies. Only a small percentage—in actual number, a handful—of Milgram’s chains of connections even found their way to completion! 

Subsequent studies and analyses by mathematicians and unbiased network theorists have, for the most part, produced similar unconvincing results. What is most interesting about this is the mixed-bag of participant and analyst interpretations (speculations/ rationalizations) about the high failure rates. Success in applying Milgram’s Assertion appears dependent on—to an immeasurable extent—how eager the participants are about making assigned connections. Anecdotal evidence indicates that a chain of cooperative, motivated, and believing/confident people is required in order for any given connection to be made, whether the number of connections required turns out to be two or ten. 

PluribusOne™’s meta-meta-study concludes that the six degrees of separation idea is no more provable than angels dancing on the head of a pin. We find no basis for Six Degrees of Separation in the patterns and principles of Nature or in the studies performed and published by others to date. 

Will more studies help prove or disprove Dr. Milgram’s surmising? No, partly because there are too many variables, and there is too much unavoidable subjectivity on the part of too many people. Some studies will appear to support the thesis and some will not. If a large enough number of studies were undertaken, “chance” alone dictates that about half would and half would not; therefore, overall, further similar study would be as useless as trying to determine once and for everyone whether Schrödinger’s Cat is dead, or alive and living on a beach in Brazil. It would be more useful to study the distribution pattern of the ingredients in a pile of Christmas fruitcakes. 

The question worth exploring is: How did Milgram manage to convince so many for so long with so little? Our tentative response to that is: You can fool most of the people some of the time and some of the people most of the time, and if you also hold a Ph.D. from Harvard and are a tenured full professor almost anywhere, the sum of those people will be more than enough to deflect skeptics and gain fame and fortune.


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